On paper, Mitt Romney seems the most attractive G.O.P. contender. He has business and executive experience, a fine family and no connection to the “Washington mess.”
Yet his chance to win the nomination is slipping away. His national poll numbers barely hit double digits, his New Hampshire lead is vanishing, and he’s spending millions of dollars just to keep afloat.
As he stood next to Fred Thompson at the Dearborn debate looking puzzled, one was reminded of the Saturday Night Live skit in which the Michael Dukakis character looked at the George H. W. Bush figure and said incredulously, “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy.”
There are several popular explanations, ranging from his now-renounced liberal past to his religion, but it is also something more fundamental than any of that: Mitt Romney is the least adept politician in the field and comes across as the least in tune to Republicans’ dominant concerns.
In interacting with voters, he often appears to be at a shareholders’ meeting, impatiently waiting out an obstreperous protestor so he can resume his prepared remarks.
In New Hampshire’s Red Arrow Diner earlier this year, he seemed unmoved as a waitress described her family’s medical difficulties, robotically informing her of his Massachusetts medical plan’s low deductibles.
And when he has been forced to think on his feet, he has displayed a remarkable tone-deafness. His “let the lawyers sort it out” answer to a question at a New Hampshire debate about the need to consult Congress about stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, a perfectly corporate approach to a nettlesome problem, was a perfectly awful answer. As all three of his major rivals piled on, he stubbornly insisted for days that his answer was just fine until forced to write an explanatory letter to The Wall Street Journal.
Mr. Romney has also made a fetish of checking the policy boxes for social conservatives and rolling out a slew of policy papers with accompanying PowerPoint presentations. Voters soon sense that he has many ideas but little gravitas. He has lots of pitches—the “three-legged stool” of conservative values, “change” and “private sector experience”—but no overarching theme or core. If Mr. Giuliani is tough and Mr. Thompson is soothing, what is he?
Making matters worse, his manicured appearance and cautious language (he really likes “apparently”) fail to convey a robust commander in chief profile that conservatives crave. Promising to “double” the size of Guantanamo seems a comical attempt to keep pace with his more macho rivals.
As a result, Mr. Romney has the highest unfavorable rating of any candidate. He doesn’t seem to like his audience much, and they don’t like him.
What to do?
First, he should follow Mr. McCain’s lead—fire the consultants and travel without an entourage or PowerPoint slideshow. Talk to people and actually listen to their feedback. Show some emotion.
Second, he must pick a single theme and relentlessly drive it home. No more position papers and no more pleas for support from congenitally dissatisfied social conservative leaders. If Mr. Romney told James Dobson, as Mr. Thompson did, that he won’t be dancing to his tune, voters would appreciate it and focus on what he’s actually offering.
Third, it would help if he could reveal something about his past that shows tenacity and courage. Rather than acting like a cautious marketing man, he should find a way to explain how he took risks and defied the cautious naysayers. If he doesn’t have foreign policy experience, he can at least show that he has nerve under pressure.
Finally, he has to stop picking and losing petty fights. If he thinks Fred Thompson is too inexperienced to be president, he should make that clear. And if thinks Rudy Giuliani is a wide-eyed social liberal who will destroy the G.O.P., he should say so.
Either way, he’s got to start saying something meaningful or credible, because Plan A isn’t working.